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Uncle John's Band hits Chicago for Grateful Dead glory

Mike Edwards, co-founder of Uncle John’s Band, rehearses a Grateful Dead tune. The Grateful Dead tribute group will play at an event connected to the Dead’s final shows in Chicago.
Published Jul. 1, 2015

TAMPA — Minutes after midnight, Uncle John's Band closes another sprawling set at Skipper's Smokehouse with the Grateful Dead's U.S. Blues, drawing cheers from the tie-dyed faithful.

Bassist Mike Edwards deflates into a stoop at stage right, wincing, rubbing his hip and his head. He fingers a cigarette as giddy fans share kudos.

"That was a long four hours," he says, limping off stage.

The hours are all long these days, but Uncle John's Band keeps rolling. This was the Grateful Dead tribute act's 850th gig at Skipper's. But for Edwards, the group's sole remaining founder, their gigs this weekend will top them all.

Friday through Sunday, for the first and last time, Uncle John's Band will finally cross paths with the band they so faithfully honor. The Grateful Dead's four core surviving members — Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart — are reuniting for three star-studded, 50th anniversary farewell concerts at Soldier Field in Chicago. Each day, Uncle John's Band will headline a four-hour pre-show party at the Field Museum just across the street.

It would be a tasty gig for any tribute band. But for Edwards — a Deadhead lifer who has seen the band live about 95 times, more than all other members of Uncle John's Band combined — Chicago represents something greater. It's the culmination of a life in service of the band that shaped his identity.

"If you were to lie down in a field of grass, with the blue sky and clouds over your head, and a little piece of grass in your hand, and you could daydream your absolute daydream," he said. "That would be it."

• • •

Deadheads are the most dedicated cult in music history, the fan base against which all others are measured. From 1965 until Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, the Grateful Dead spawned a subculture in every city as fans clustered to smoke pot, drop acid, trade tapes, and get lost in a never-ending groove.

For Edwards, the trip began Aug. 1, 1973, the first time he saw the Dead live. He was a skinny high school wrestler shelving produce at A&P when a smoke-break buddy persuaded him to drive an hour-plus south to see the Dead at Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium. Edwards was not a Dead fan, but he was up for anything.

"Anything avant garde or bohemian, I was very curious about," he said. At the show, "I walked around outside like a little wiener, a newbie," he said.

The music? Meh. Same for the second and third time he saw them. But Edwards got into the Dead's iconography — the skulls, the roses, the dancing bears and skeletons.

Edwards played in the odd local band during the '70s and '80s. In 1989, when the reigning local Dead tribute shifted direction, Edwards and his brothers Bob and Tim stepped in.

Edwards was the band's self-described "alpha," singing lead and booking shows. He and Tim would chase down cars with Dead stickers to plug gigs. They played dives, weddings, festivals, funerals, bikini contests.

Like the Dead, Uncle John's Band evolved; Edwards counts 17 full-time members over the years. And like the Dead, they built a following. In 1998 they kicked off a 17-year Thursday residency at Skipper's Smokehouse. Guests joined in all the time, including former Grateful Dead keyboardists Vince Welnick and Tom Constanten.

Today's lineup, steady since drummer Mike Bortz joined four years ago, is as talented and diverse as ever. Singer Rich Whitely is a full-time musician with his own solo career. Guitarist Alan Gilman is an anesthesiologist and fanatical collector of rare Garcia guitars. Drummer Dan DeGregory (married to Times' writer Lane DeGregory) teaches music and English at St. Petersburg's Canterbury School of Florida. Keyboardist Art Nelson and Edwards get together once a week to watch the Rays and study their own bootlegs.

To Edwards, Uncle John's Band will always be, first and foremost, a bar band. It doesn't pay the bills, but it does pay.

"We're not the Grateful Dead," he said. "Your job is to keep people drinking and dancing. You never lose sight of that."

But that's not the reason he does it.

• • •

With his genial grumble and graying, close-cropped beard, Edwards looks the part of a Deadhead. As such, he's the consensus figurehead of the local institution.

"It's something that, in a way, defines him," said DeGregory. "This has been a huge part of his identity since he's lived in this area. I think he takes a lot of pride in the fact that the band has had the longevity that it has."

For years, Edwards has bounced between homes; he now rents a room from a jam-band crash pad in St. Petersburg's Old Northeast neighborhood. He has kicked around the service industry for decades — four Carrabba's, three Outbacks, stately joints like Tio Pepe and Parkshore Grill, where he now waits tables at lunch.

He was married to a woman who tolerated his Grateful Dead fanaticism; she even came with him to some shows. It didn't last. Some years he drank too much; that, too, didn't last. He's been depressed. That comes and goes.

Edwards has endured hernia surgery and prostate cancer, and his right hand is partly numb from nerve damage; he tapes up his bass picks to get a better grip. Lately the problem's been his hip. It smarts something awful — during one recent show, it hurt so much that he handed the bass to DeGregory.

He can see Uncle John's Band rolling on without him. He hopes it will. But he knows around 170 Dead songs today, and could name another 60 he'd like to learn.

The music and message of the Dead, he believes, is canonical. Any Deadhead who can play it, project it, perpetuate it, has an obligation to do so. He compares Garcia to Mozart and Beethoven and Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

"He will become a semester or something in your music school," Edwards said.

And it won't stop there.

"The Grateful Dead will then be family-treed like you wouldn't believe," he said, from Garcia all the way down to "higher-end Grateful Dead cover bands." The chance to be a tiny part of something so immortal — to have a legacy that extends beyond his own life — "seems funny to consciously think about."

Yet he does.

• • •

Tribute acts from across the country will migrate to Chicago for the Grateful Dead's farewell shows. Uncle John's Band is among the very few playing in such close proximity to the Dead. The band's website, filled with concert clips, helped them land the prime spot.

"I don't know how much bigger of a compliment you can be paid," Bortz said.

Like most Deadheads, Uncle John's Band views the farewell shows as an awkward cash grab, albeit one that will let some fans get closure.

"It'll be the most viable music the band has put out since Jerry died," Edwards said. But, he admits: "At the risk of sounding like your parents, you never think anything is as good as it used to be."

If not for the gig — and the fact that a friend offered him cheap seats — Edwards wouldn't even be in Chicago. Financially, it's a squeeze. But the more he thought about it, he realized: How could he miss it?.

"You have to go to the last one," he said. "You really do."

Between Chicago and the great Deadhead hereafter are more long Thursdays at Skipper's. Fans will kick off their sandals and hug beneath curtains of oak limbs and moss. Women in flowing dresses will twirl Hula Hoops on their hips. The never-ending groove is still there for the chasing.

"After 25 years of doing this," Edwards said, "almost every night, about eight bars into the first song, I get a little smile that creeps across my face: Here we go again."

His eyes close and his head sways. He's awash in the moment, feeling 16 again. He's there. He's in it. He's alive.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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